Leaders’ Tough COVID-19 Task

Handling a corona-caused layoff.

Posted May 25, 2020

Pikrepo, Public Domain
Source: Pikrepo, Public Domain

Sure, being a leader is prestigious and often lucrative. But there are downsides, some of which are more common amid the COVID-19 economic shutdown, for example, having to lay off people.

Of course, every situation and every leader is different, but here’s one way that painful situation might be approached. After, I’ll list the principles that were embedded.

It is truly painful to have to announce that COVID-19 has necessitated laying off a third of you so we don’t have to let all of you go.

By the time you return to your desk, those of you who will be laid off will have an email laying out the details, but I want to tell you personally that I could not be more aware that each and every one of the 25 of you is not just an "asset" but a person, a human being, who found their job not just a source of income but an important part of their life. I am instructing all managers to meet individually with each person to be laid off to craft a letter of reference that, while honest, should help you in moving forward.

A word to those of you who will be staying on. You all have been working hard, I know. I walk around, I see what you do. I do not feel it’s right to pressure you to do any more. I’ll ask only that if, and only if, you feel you have any extra bandwidth, where you can, try to fill in the gap, not just for the company but for the 25 human beings I hope I can invite back when the economy turns.

And because none of us like long speeches, including mine, I will stop here and candidly try to answer as many questions as you may have for as long as you wish.

If I were asked how it was decided who would be kept, I'd strive for honesty tempered with kindness. So, to the group, I'd probably say something like, "Our priority was to keep the people  most critical to the firm's short-term survival." I'd keep it short and sweet like that. We also would consider which employees would likely be the most productive in the longer term, but probably wouldn't say that to the group because the benefit of that more expansive answer would likely be outweighed by its liabilities to both the company and its people. But if an individual privately asked me why s/he was not kept, I'd provide sufficient detail, tactfully, to help the employee achieve greater success in the future.

Embedded principles

Reveal your honest emotion. In the example, the leader began with, “It is truly painful…”

Give the core reason up front, in a concise, memorable way. In this case: “We're laying off a third of you so we don’t end up having to let all of you go.”

Preempt objections. Some employees believe the employer thinks of them as “assets,” not human beings. In this example, the leader preempted that with, “I could not be more aware that each and every one of the 25 of you is a human being, who found their job not just a source of income but an important part of their life.”

Back up the talk with action. Even though managers will now be more strapped, the leader is having them meet individually with each employee to craft a reference that facilitates restoration financially and psychologically. The leader ended the talk by reassuring, “I'll try to answer as many questions as you may have for as long as you wish.”

Where possible, don't mandate. Ask. Rather than ordering the remaining employees to fill in the gap left by the employees who will be laid off, the leader left the choice with each employee, thereby focusing not only on profits but on people: “If and only if, you feel you have any extra bandwidth, where you can, try to fill in the gap, not just for the company but for the 25 human beings I hope I can invite back when the economy turns."

Be honest yet kind. It's usually wise to consider both the organization and its people's feelings, hence the answer I offered in response to being asked, "How did you choose who to keep?"

Add a touch but just a touch of humor. Even in sad times, a bit of humor, especially self-effacing humor, can help: “Because no one likes long speeches, including mine, I’ll stop here." And that’s probably true of blog posts. So I’ll stop here.

I read this aloud on YouTube.